A Life in Objects

C and I drove down to Broadstairs on Monday.  The sky was clear and blue with a hint of salt and it reminded me of my dad’s favorite food – fish.  As a boy in Balbriggan, he said the fishermen would sometimes give the children some free fish if they’d had a good day.  Dad would run home with armfuls of shiny slippery fish and watch his mum roll them in oatmeal and fry for dinner.  But this was in the 1930s and dad is now in a home for people with dementia, and like millions of others, the house is being sold to pay for his care.

According to My Elderly Parent, which features a medley of useful advice, plus photos of jolly seniors smiling over laptops, and in the financial section, holding a handful of small change (perhaps a reminder of how much the state pension will be worth in years to come) – anyone with savings over £23,250 has to pay the full cost of their care.  In the majority of cases this means selling the house.  There is also the excellent website Age UK which I’ve often used for unbiased advice.  And when dad was still living at home, I used Which Local to find tradesmen.  I knew that areas with a high percentage of elderly people were targeted by both major corporations and scammers.  His phone rang constantly by people doing ‘marketing surveys’, and this was after I’d registered his phone with the TPS.

We arrived in Broadstairs to find the house clearers I’d asked to meet us, were already there.  Boyd and Maureen run Away2Day.  They work by asking you to remove everything you want, before doing an inventory, working out what they can make money from and then disposing of the rest.  It usually ends up costing you, but it means you don’t have to get rid of heavy furniture.  Maureen and I walked round the house with paper and pen, followed by Lara (who seems to have inherited a knickknacks gene from somewhere).

Objects.  The really ugly three-piece which forced the occupant to sit upright and had wooden arms.  There was no lolling about on my mum’s sofas.   The bird’s-eye view of Dublin in 1846 we were taking home for my sister.  A wine rack where dad carefully kept years of his favorites.  We had opened a few bottles and found several had gone off completely.  The rest we gave to dad’s friends who visited him tirelessly in hospital.

Down to the dark, ugly cellar with the disconnected freezer, innards sloshing with disgusting fluid.  When dad was sinking he would switch everything off, including the freezer.  My sister and I arrived to a smell so bad we had to dab tea tree oil on the inside of our noses before venturing downstairs.  Once we’d cleared out the freezer (I had to hold my breath) we poured bleach and boiling water into the dead freezer.  It was worth every penny of the £30 it would cost us to get Away2Day to take the horrible thing away and dispose of it in an ecological manner.

Upstairs to a pair of thigh high boots which C immediately declared ‘very useful’ and some flippers from my sister’s scuba diving.  A hamper of photos.  A chest of hand knitted lace and crisply ironed tablecloths which mum kept for ‘best’.  A folder of all the articles I’d had published, slid into plastic liners and dated by mum, who never mentioned anything about my writing.  A pair of designer jeans that Lara would be looking wonderful in, in a few years.  A cashmere cardigan I bought mum but again, she put it away for ‘best’.  ‘Wear it,’ I urged.  ‘Ah no – it’ll be spoiled.’   A Roberts Radio tuned to Radio 4.   A selection of crime thrillers, loved by mum.  The Kobbe opera guide I bought for dad when I worked in Random House and we had a 98% Christmas discount.  And a jug I bought mum on a teenage trip to France.  It’s smooth, glossy and cool to the touch, a small thing full of memories.

My class were to go on an educational trip to Calais, (boring worksheets were distributed, lunches scoffed at 7.05am, and the coach had stopped twice for various people to be sick, wee or smoke a fag).  Then the coach broke down on the M2, we missed our ferry and ended up going to Boulogne instead.  No worksheets!  The teachers checked we were all alive and then buggered off to a pub, leaving us alone.  So we broke up into small groups.  Not our usual friendship groups, but boys mixing with girls, and away from the peer pressures of school, in a different environment, we relaxed with each other.  Any playground hostilities were suspended.  So feeling very grownup, our group found a restaurant and ordered beef bourguignon which arrived steaming in a white tureen accompanied by a glorious pile of crispy french fries.  We knew we had chosen well because there were loads of french people in the restaurant looking at us with approval.  We arrived home at 2am because the coach broke down again, but it was a wonderful day, all encapsulated in that little jug, bought in a Boulogne tourist trap and kept scratch free for over thirty years.

Maureen brought me back to the business of what we were taking and leaving behind.  She made a few calculations with Boyd and then explained what it would cost and why and we  didn’t have to pay until we had seen the cleaned up house and were satisfied.  I liked them.  They were professional without being too brisk and understood that contents are not just that – they are someone’s life and the process of stripping down a house to be sold is very painful.


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